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PhD Life

Optimising your PhD productivity.

Productivity is a constant battle and challenge we all want to get better at. Being able to optimise this during our PhD but also outside of our profession can really lead to more positive and impactful outcomes in the long term. This post provides some tips to take your productivity to the next level.

Productivity during your PhD is one of the most widely discussed topics. Even if you’re not having explicit conversations with others about how to be more productive, you’re most likely constantly evaluating your own productivity, your own output, and checking in from time to time to see how productive others are being for no reason other than to ‘make sure’ you’re doing just as much.

Because of how siloed and autonomous a PhD is, it can be difficult to peg yourself or even figure out what the ‘norm’ is. This is often a driving factor for overworking, poor work life balance, working on weekends, or other unhealthy work habits. We engage in these habits for two core reasons. Firstly, fears around not being productive enough, so we push ourselves to do more to maintain the ‘status quo’. This might be perpetuated by imposter syndrome or if you have supervisors who have poor boundaries and are extremely demanding. The second main reason is we sort of ‘create’ additional work to make us ‘feel’ productive, even if the output itself doesn’t necessarily make too much of an impact.

This might look like creating flamboyant to-do-lists, or neatly decorated schedules or planners. We might twiddle our thumbs over remedial tasks to fill a gap of nothingness to feel as though we’ve been productive. You might even decide to go and twiddle your thumbs at your office on campus, as opposed to at home without even doing any extra work simply because being ‘in the office’ feels more productive than being at home.

Commuting isn’t productive btw…

Given this, your first step to improving your productivity is to identify what your ‘thumb twiddling’ habits are. What are the insignificant things you spend a lot of time over in your typical working week that ‘feels’ productive but ultimately doesn’t move you closer to your goal and/or deadline? It can take some level of self-awareness to identify what this is (or you know exactly what you do to avoid work). If you’re not sure, a good starting point is to keep a journal or note down what you’ve done in the last week. Do this as you go. Not only will this create something to refer to so you can evaluate your time management but it will also assist with improving your self-awareness. If you keep making a note of ‘what you’re doing’, you’re likely to be more conscious of it.

The other two pointers when it comes to optimising your productivity are age old discussion points that are mentioned in almost every self-help, self-development, or ‘be more productive’ book. These are both the 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Principle) and Parkinson’s Law. The goal here is to combine both the 80/20 rule and Parkinson’s Law together (not just one of them) to really optimise your productivity and overall output – but what are they?

The 80/20 rule is a simple concept that emphasises that 80% of your outcomes or output (i.e., your productivity) comes from 20% of your efforts and/or inputs. In lay terms, the vast majority or bulk of your PhD work or any other responsibilities you have, comes from the 20% of your efforts. This ties in with the previous point discussed, around ‘thumb twiddling’ because thumb twiddling is a useless input, that doesn’t contribute to any output – even if this takes up 6 hours of your week. Applying this to your PhD journey, 20% of your writing time might actually end up in a publication, in a poster, or in your thesis. The remaining 80% of your writing time might end up nowhere, or just simply be lost into the abyss. The goal here is to not write more, but to reduce the redundant writing time (there of course will inevitably be some) which in turn creates more time to focus on the productive writing time. It’s about being more efficient with your tasks, not creating more.

Taking the 80/20 rule one step further, it also emphasises the relative return of your time invested. A lot of the things you do during your PhD, such as helping your supervisor run other projects, applying for additional grants, peer-reviewing other paper’s, some conferences, or anything else are indeed valuable. However, the amount of time these take up to complete might not give you as much output or returns in the long run. It’s very rare that in your viva you’ll be asked about papers you’ve peer-reviewed or what additional experiments that were unrelated to your PhD did you engage in. Rather than investing time into these tasks, it might be better to stop them all together and focus your time on the ones that will matter – such as publishing, writing your thesis, or working on your own research. Again, for emphasis, it’s not about doing more, it’s about doing less and prioritising the things that matter.

The second concept to improve your productivity is Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law works on the premise that work will inevitably expand to the fill the period of time available for its completion. In other words, if you have 7 hours to complete something – it will definitely take 7 hours. If you have 3 months to write a paper it’ll take you 3 months. If you have 4 years to do a PhD…… you know where we’re going with this. This is one of the most challenging ones to manage as a PhD student. Because we technically have no set hours, and the PhD journey doesn’t have any rigid deadlines (other than your upgrade at 6 months and your thesis submission right at the end) it’s easy to just say ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ or ‘I have 50 hours of time this week’. If we’re more disciplined with our time and enforce that we can only work 5 days a week between 9am and 5pm, then we’re more likely to get things done in that allotted time. You could even try and get everything done in less hours and in fewer days to really unlock and optimise your productivity.

Have you ever given yourself a day off, or had an appointment, or been sick in the week? Strange how everything gets done without things falling apart despite losing a day isn’t it. That’s Parkinson’s Law in action. Thus, the way to leverage Parkinson’s Law in your PhD is to give yourself short and immediate deadlines. Don’t give yourself a week to do something, give yourself 2 days. Sometimes think to yourself ‘if I only had one day to work this week, what would I focus on to get it done’. The more we adopt these practices the more likely we are to get things done sooner, and even if we don’t, we would have made significantly more progress in less amounts of time. If that’s not productivity, I don’t know what is.

And there we have it. The combination of eliminating redundant tasks, focusing your energy into the things that will give you your 80% return, and setting strict deadlines to ensure things get completed sooner is the best way to improve your productivity during your PhD. Remember, it’s not about taking on more, it’s about cutting things down and applying your efforts to where it really matters to get things done.


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